“Native Copper”: Exhibiting Anishinaabe Wealth at the U.S. National Museum – Gustave Lester

How did a three-thousand-pound rock of “native copper”—meaning copper ore found in its pure form—end up in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution? In the early 1840s, the U.S. government facilitated the movement of the Ontonagon Boulder from deep within its resting place in Anishinaabewaki (the homeland of the Anishinaabeg) to well over a thousand miles away in Washington D.C. for public display. But how did this removal occur? And why did the U.S. government want to exhibit Anishinaabe wealth at the heart of the nation?1

Figure 1. Researcher E. Banks with Ontonagon Copper Boulder at the Gem and Mineral Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. Victor Krantz, “The Ontonagon Copper Boulder,” Washington, D.C., August 26, 1971, Photograph, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-009, Image No. 71-403.

In the early nineteenth century, many settler colonists and U.S. leaders took an active interest in acquiring and exhibiting the natural wealth of Indigenous territories. In August 1843, a Detroit hardware merchant named Julius Eldred arrived at Copper Harbor on the northern tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula—now the western half of the Upper Peninsula of the state of Michigan. A few days later, Eldred was traveling west along the southern shore of Lake Superior aboard the chartered schooner Algonquin, headed for the mouth of the Ontonagon River. Once there, he and his crew —“twenty white men . . .  besides myself and some Indians”— hauled this one-and-a-half ton rock onto the ship. Eldred had spent the previous two summers moving the enormous mass roughly twenty-five miles from its ancient seat on the bank of the river’s western branch to the lake’s shore. Over the course of several months, Eldred and his team had maneuvered the boulder across the rugged terrain using chains, ropes, blocks, and a portable railway and railroad car made in Detroit for this purpose. Contemporaries were shocked by his success, calling it a “wild and reckless speculation, and one that very few would have undertaken, as it was very generally supposed an impossibility to remove it whole.” Indeed, as another local man put it, “Many predicted that he would fail in his effort … it was a matter of astonishment to us when we heard that he had reached the lake with the copper rock.”2

Eldred was far from the first non-Native person to try removing the boulder from Anishinaabe territory. He purchased the Ontonagon Boulder in the summer of 1841 from Okandikan, an ogimaa (leader) of the Ontonagon band of Anishinaabeg living on the southern shore of Gichigamiing (Lake Superior). They agreed to $45 immediately and $105 more once Eldred was successful. Okandikan probably expected Eldred to fail, too. Many members of the Ontonagon band regarded — and continue to regard — Misko-biiwaabik (copper), and the boulder in particular, as a powerful, animate object and an important source of sovereignty and spiritual wealth. Failure was, moreover, a reasonable prediction. Not only was Eldred unsuccessful in his removal attempts for two consecutive years, leading U.S. government officials had also tried and failed to remove the boulder. In 1826, Michigan territorial governor Lewis Cass and Indian Affairs Superintendent Thomas L. McKenney had hired twenty men to try to steal the boulder and bring it to Washington D.C. Ultimately, however, they were forced to abandon their attempt on account of “lofty mountains and gulfs that had to be passed over.” But the failure of Cass and McKenney did little to squelch the interests of settler colonists and the U.S. government in the capture and display of Anishinaabe copper.3

What could have possibly motivated such endeavors? It was not the market value of the metal itself. As Captain Maynadier of the Ordnance Bureau put it, the “celebrated boulder of copper . . . [was] desirable chiefly upon other considerations than those of its mere commercial value,” which the anthropologist Charles Moore later estimated to be no more than $600. If successful in his efforts, Eldred expected to not only recuperate his expenses—which amounted to several thousand dollars—but to make a fortune from its public exhibition in Detroit. Decades of travelers’ accounts had transformed the Ontonagon Boulder into a widely known curiosity and wonder speculated to be the largest mass of “native copper ” in the world. Many also regarded it as a premonition of future subterranean fortunes should the U.S. government ever successfully extinguish Native title to the land. Political leaders such as Cass, McKenney, and Secretary of War James M. Porter wanted the copper rock taken from its resting place beyond the territorial edge of the country and moved to Washington, D.C., for public display. There this mass of raw, useful metal would remain “a monument of wonder for all future time” and encapsulate for onlookers the promise of an imperial state with continent-sized political and economic aspirations. To the many early nineteenth-century advocates of an economically independent and industrially ascendant United States, the boulder offered a spectacular confirmation of the extractive potential of unclaimed Indigenous lands. U.S. officials referred to it as a “beautiful and splendid specimen of the mineral wealth of the ‘Far West.’” At the same time, they called it an “extraordinary specimen of the mineral riches of our country,” despite the continued insistence by Anishinaabe leaders that their land and wealth had not been ceded to the United States.4 

Eldred’s journey had brought him into the heart of Anishinaabewaki, where Anishinaabe doodemag (bands) had successfully undermined decades of efforts by U.S. leaders to acquire their land and wealth. At a treaty at La Pointe in 1842, Anishinaabe ogimaag agreed to lease their copper-rich land to the United States for mining while being careful to ensure that they retained their right to live, hunt, fish, and gather on their land and would not face the threat of dispossession like so many other Indigenous nations. Despite their promises, the U.S. government tried to forcibly remove Anishinaabe communities from their resource-rich homeland within the decade. They failed to do so, however. In 1854, after more than a decade of organizing against the expropriative aspirations of the United States, the Lake Superior Anishinaabeg successfully secured permanent reservations within their homeland. But these reservations excluded the lands rich with copper ore—soon to become the largest source of mined copper in the United States. For this reason, the Ojibwe historian Erik Redix concluded that U.S. acquisition of Anishinaabe copper lands was “tantamount to robbery.”5

The federal government lost no time in confiscating the boulder in the wake of the contested treaty of La Pointe in 1842. Before Eldred could even leave Copper Harbor in August 1843 to retrieve the boulder and pay Okandikan his due, he was accosted by Walter Cunningham, the newly appointed federal special agent of mineral lands on the peninsula. Cunningham had gotten wind of Eldred’s scheme and was delighted by his success in moving the boulder to the lake. He forced Eldred to deliver the boulder personally to Washington, telling him that he would “call on the troops at Fort Brady, if necessary,” and suggesting Eldred petition Congress for remuneration. Eldred shepherded the Ontonagon Boulder to the U.S. War Office and, indeed, managed to secure compensation from Congress for his troubles before returning to Detroit. Neither Okandikan nor the Lake Superior Anishinaabe were considered in these discussions about appropriate remuneration. The boulder remained in the yard of the Quartermaster’s Office of the War Department until 1860, when it was moved to be displayed at the newly established Smithsonian Institution, designated the National Museum of the United States in 1857. 

In the late twentieth century, the L’Anse and Ontonagon bands of the Lake Superior Ojibwe, constituting the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), requested repatriation of the Ontonagon Boulder. As documented by Redix, the KBIC requested the return of the boulder as a sacred object under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), citing its use in purification before Midewiwin ceremonies. However, the Smithsonian denied the repatriation request, claiming that “the Ontonagon boulder does not fit the definition of sacred object under the repatriation law, and the right of possession belongs with the Smithsonian Institution.” The Ontonagon Boulder now lies behind the closed doors of the Smithsonian Archives. But while the Ontonagon Boulder has been removed from public display, the mineralogical spaces of natural history museums across the United States remain filled with the wealth of Anishinaabewaki. Today, such exhibits serve principally to educate museum-goers of the material properties and geological occurrence of copper. They also recall the nineteenth-century transformation of the Upper Peninsula into a leading source of the metal for manufacturers during the rise of the United States as a world industrial power. Yet the act of retaining and exhibiting Anishinaabe wealth, taken from the land under which the Ontonagon Boulder used to rest, may carry greater meaning. In doing so, the museum spaces of the United States risk maintaining the attendant, older tradition of commemorating the colonial aspiration to expropriate Indigenous wealth.6

Gustave Lester (he/him) is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and the 2022-2023 dissertation fellow in residence at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. He is writing a dissertation about the history of geology, settler colonialism, and industrial resources in the early U.S. empire.

Read Lester’s article “Land, Fur, and Copper: The Union of Settler Colonialism and Industrial Capitalism in the Great Lakes Region, 1815–1842” in EAS’s Winter 2023 issue.

  1. Anishinaabe (plural Anishinaabeg) is a collective term that refers to Indigenous peoples who also identify as Ojibweg, Odawaag, and Boodewaadamiig. These Anishinaabe names are frequently anglicized as Chippewas, Ottawas, and Potawatomi. On Anishinaabe identity and Anishinaabewaki, see Michael J. Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
  2. The Committee on Public Lands, 28th Cong., 1st sess., April 1, 1844, Doc. 260, 1-27 (all quotes). See also Charles Moore, The Ontonagon Copper Bowlder in the U. S. National Museum (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1897); David J. Krause, The Making of a Mining District: Keweenaw Native Copper 1500-1870 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992).
  3. The Committee on Public Lands, 28th Cong., 1st sess., April 1, 1844, Doc. 260 (quote). On the Ontonagon band and the historical and ongoing cultural and spiritual significance of copper, see Erik Redix, “‘Our Hope and Our Protection’: Misko-Biiwaabik (Copper) and Tribal Sovereignty in Michigan,” American Indian Quarterly 41, no. 3 (2017): 224-249.
  4. The Committee on Public Lands, 28th Cong., 1st sess., April 1, 1844, Doc. 260 (quotes); Moore, The Ontonagon Copper Bowlder in the U. S. National Museum, 1026.
  5. Erik M. Redix, The Murder of Joe White: Ojibwe Leadership and Colonialism in Wisconsin, American Indian Studies Series (East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2014), 59.
  6. Assessment of a Request for the Repatriation of the Ontonagon Boulder by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 2000), accessed February 10, 2023, https://naturalhistory.si.edu/sites/default/files/media/file/case-reports-northeast-region-rev2-2020.pdf. Erik Redix has rebutted the logic of the denial and supported ongoing repatriation efforts with new linguistic and historical evidence. Redix, “‘Our Hope and Our Protection.’”